20 Years to Go and Still Counting

Gaia cover

My co-author, Andy Hoffman, sent me a link to an article in The Guardian about some recent utterances of James Lovelock. Lovelock has been raising attention to the environment for about as long as any living person has.

Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s, the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of Britain’s most respected - if maverick - independent scientists. Working alone since the age of 40, he invented a device that detected CFCs, which helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer, and introduced the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science.

I think his Gaia model was unjustifiably criticized, perhaps because people objected to his use of “organism,” which may have appeared to attribute more life to the planet than many humanists were comfortable with. But if you interpret his model as describing a complex adaptive system, including both living and non-living components, he is smack on. Such systems behave within what appear to be relatively stable, but changing or evolving structure. They remain within that structure, changing internally to reflect perturbations. Complex theorists call this remaining in an attractor. But if the perturbations are powerful enough, the system can jump precipitously into a new structure (attractor) that may (and is likely to be) inhospitable to parts of the systems.

Geologists have a name, Holocene, for the recent stable period of the earth that lasted for about 11,000 years up to the present time. Paul Cruzen, another notable scientist, argues that we have now entered into a new era, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are significantly perturbing the system with unknown (and unknowable) consequences. We do know that severe melting of the ocean is a outcome that scientific models predict with some finite probability. The consequences or costs of such an event in terms of human displacement and misery are harder to forecast. Many people have used the possibility of some sort of doomsday as an argument for acting now, even if we aren’t certain it is coming. Lovelock clearly does as the article continues. “His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater.”

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

I do not agree with him at all in his conclusion that we simply need to plan for our survival. I do not think the alternative is to “go back to nature” either, although I am not quite sure what he means here. He suggests that this next catastrophe (He counts seven such events so far in human history) will perhaps transform our species so that “we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly.” It makes sense to plan for the eventually, but should do whatever we do on a global scale so the the rich do not weigh the necessary investments in their favor. If we use a formula to allocate efforts and resources to prevent and mitigate the impacts of any catastrophe, it might be based on the historical input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its residence time.

Lovelock believes that all the present efforts to avert a major impact, like recycling, renewables, etc., do not amount to a hill of beans. It’s too late to stop the juggernaut with marginal and incremental remedies, he says. I agree but I hesitate to call those who do “insane.” But I strongly disagree with his argument for waiting until the shoe drops to begin to transform our species. That’s the core of my arguments in both books I have written. We can, should, and must begin right now to exchange the two critical cultural beliefs that are at the root of our deteriorating situation with the two that will start the movement toward flourishing. It may be too late to prevent a disaster, whose magnitude we cannot know in advance, but it is not too late to start the process of rebuilding our cultural institutions around the kind of understanding, caring human who would be able to, as Lovelock says, “live with it properly.” I would add that “properly” implies the emergence of flourishing. Understanding that humans are caring, not needy, creatures and that the world is complex, not machine-like, would do exactly what is needed. We do not have to wait for the disaster; we can start right now.